Alternatives to a goodnight kiss

It’s scarey For Esme, our foster daughter, to tell anyone she loves them. It requires a depth of trust that she doesn’t have access to. It requires her to make herself vulnerable, to lower the heavy armour she has built up over the years of her life.

Abusive, inconstant and cruel parenting forced her to start layering on this armour before she could speak. If you raise the barriers, you can’t be hurt – this is what she has taught herself. She was the oldest child in the family, so when she was born and first began toddling around, there was nobody to act as a buffer between her and her parents, no caring sibling, no protector. Her younger brother is far less damaged, because he had Esme to shield him, to some extent.

So Esme appears cold, distant and uninterested in people much of the time. It has taken me years to accept her need to push me away. I have cried and agonised on many evenings, at the end of a long day of trying to connect with this little girl and feeling that I have failed.

Just one of the many profound lessons that fostering has taught me is that children can’t be forced to accept love, and that I can’t expect children to fall in with my ideas about how to behave, and to express that huge thing – love.

So, I want to give Esme cuddles. She hates them. Still, at the school gates, she strains away from me, presents me with the back of her head for a kiss, won’t make eye contact. At bed time, after a book, she can’t handle a kiss so we manage an awkward hug and then we do the hand kiss. This is something Esme came up with a couple of years ago, and it has become more important and complex as time has passed. It started off with her kissing her palm and then putting her hand on my arm as she said goodnight. It then progressed to me kissing my palm and her allowing me to lay my palm against hers. A kiss without lips or intimacy. I guess it feels really safe but still feels like an expression of love. We now kiss both of our palms and press them against each other’s corresponding palms each night and at the same time, I try to hold her gaze for a few long seconds. It feels good. It’s a positive way to end each day, whatever has happened.

Occasionally now, when I have left Esme’s bedroom and am making my way down stairs so that I am well out of sight and almost out of earshot, Esme will call, ‘Love you!’ I think it’s directed towards me, so I call back ‘Love you too!’

A couple of nights ago as we did the hand kiss, Esme suddenly said, ‘I just can’t stop holding you.’ I was shocked into silence for a few seconds. She NEVER holds me. Never physically, because it feels too risky. Because even after living with us for several years, I think there’s a part of her which still fears that I will turn that hug into something else. After recovering myself, I said, ‘You can hold me any time, I’m always here for you.’ She responded with a smile.

Without claiming to be a mind reader, I like to think Esme hugs me and cuddles me in her head. A smile from her, with proper eye contact, is as good as a hold.

Some time soon I’m hoping the hugs will become easier for Esme, something she can accept and offer on an ad hoc basis like her brother. Until then, I will do as I was recently advised to by a friend on Twitter – smother from a distance.


Alternatives to a goodnight kiss

Esme & the kitten

This kitten was supposed to be mine. Trifle is stunningly beautiful, fluffy, her colouring a mix of smokey grey and peach. She has enormous paws and startling yellow eyes. She holds her own amongst children, other cats and the occasional visiting dog. She is feisty, courageous and playful, everything I ever wished for in a cat.

I just assumed that she would understand that she was mine, so I suppose I didn’t spell it out to her.

Trifle has lived with us for three months and is completely and absolutely besotted with Esme, our foster daughter. This won’t mean much to people who don’t know Esme, but to our family it is a constant daily surprise. Esme has a severe attachment disorder, suffers with PTSD and is in almost total emotional shutdown. This has been the case for the last six years. Esme finds touch of any sort tricky to handle, doesn’t enjoy eye contact and makes herself deliberately unbearable to be around – becoming noisy, rude and punchy. People are initially confused by her then they tend to withdraw from her. She is able to maintain this wonderful isolation which, in her head, keeps her safe. We have learnt to love her from a distance, to be inventive and creative and sneaky in demonstrating to her how much she means to us.

Then Trifle arrived. The love-bombing started quite soon. Esme would sit down at the table to read to me – something she hates doing – and Trifle would come and sit on the book. Then she would start tapping Esme’s hand, then she would put her front feet on Esme’s shoulder and start gently licking her cheek. Esme was initially annoyed. I was jealous – Trifle treated me like dirt, stalking past me and ignoring my affectionate approaches.

Reading time became a juggling act, with me trying to field Trifle’s attentions so that Esme could stumble through a couple of pages. Trifle was not to be distracted though – she always gravitated back to this little girl and almost forced herself upon her, even when Esme was pushing her away repeatedly and shouting in her face. It didn’t seem to matter. Trifle would reappear, purring and mewing to Esme, desperate to get onto her lap, to stare into here eyes and knead her legs.

Then things ramped up a bit – Trifle would try and sneak into Esme’s room at bedtime. My husband and I would do an 11pm sweep of the children’s rooms and find Trifle curled up around Esme’s head, purring into her pillow. She started waiting for Esme outside the toilet, calling for her to open the door, jumping onto her lap at mealtimes, trying to follow her down the road to school.

We were all flummoxed…..we still are. I think Trifle can somehow sense the need in Esme, and she is determined to fill it. As humans, we sometimes feel like giving up when this child throws our love and emotion back in our faces….when she turns away from our kisses, won’t return our hugs, appears cold and unfeeling. There’s only so much rejection we can take before our barriers have to come up, to protect our own sanity. Over the years that we have cared for Esme, I have tortured myself because my relationship with her has been so lacking in warmth and openness – from her side. I had resigned myself to it always being this way, and had accepted that this was all Esme could handle at the present time.

Now Trifle is having an un-looked for effect on Esme. Daily love bombing is wearing down her defences. As often as Esme pushes Trifle away, Trifle comes back, not appearing to take the rejection personally. Esme ignores Trifle – Trifle simply climbs a bit higher up her chest and nestles into her neck. Esme tries to push Trifle away – Trifle purrs louder than ever and closes her eyes in Zen happiness, refusing to be moved.

Finally, Esme has given up and given in. She sits down on the sofa to watch TV and Trifle immediately hops onto her lap, gazing lovingly into her eyes. Esme allows Trifle to sit at her feet while she cleans her teeth, chirping to her at reassuring intervals. Esme shyly tells me that she thinks Trifle loves her the most out of all the family, and I have to agree. The annoyance has gone, and there is a small kernel of pride inside Esme – an acknowledgement that she can inspire such devotion. And, amazingly, a growing acceptance of the love being showered on her, unconditionally, every day, by this kitten.

OK, she can’t see that my husband and I have been trying to shower her with love for the past six years, that we have wept and sighed and ranted and worried about her and over her for most of that time. That’s too much for Esme to handle or accept at the moment, but yesterday as I watched her gently holding Trifle on her lap, cradling her like a baby, I had real hope for the future.

I think we’ll get there, with Trifle showing Esme the way.


Esme & the kitten

Back to school……and the difference a great teacher can make

So my foster son went back to school this morning. I was full of anxiety, trepidation, stress. He was beaming, cheerful and confident.

His last school year was disastrous in patches. Stubborn refusals to join in with lessons and activities, running away from staff, controlling behaviours and physical aggression which escalated to such a level that the head teacher threatened to exclude him.

There had always been problems with school, but last year was off the scale, and it deeply affected his friendships and our stress levels. Luckily, the parents of the children he had hurt were incredibly understanding, down playing events and giving him leeway.

We were at a loss to understand quite why things were so bad, but, and I feel awful saying this, my husband and I are convinced that some part of the problem was his teacher. She was lovely, enthusiastic, young and bubbly. We sat with her in a meeting before our foster son entered her class and explained that he needed boundaries…..very firm boundaries. It makes him feel safe if he knows who is in charge, and then some of the controlling behaviours recede, which usually takes away a lot of the conflict. She nodded and seemed receptive to what we were saying.

However, we discovered at a much later date that this teacher believed in fluid boundaries, and felt so sorry for our foster child that she allowed him to do pretty much what he felt like in the classroom. A recipe for disaster. He didn’t respect her authority, she didn’t understand or accept what he needed and so all the foundations of good behaviour which other teachers had nurtured in him collapsed. In three months. The really low point was when he stabbed another child in the back with a pencil.

I think this was when the teacher sat up and realised what was happening, but it was pretty much too late by then for her to claw back her authority. Our foster son spent the rest of the year in limbo, unsure of this new ‘strict’ version of his teacher, while also being aware of her vulnerabilities and sympthies towards him, he was miserable and unsettled. We were all glad to get the year over with.

This year, our son has a fantastic teacher. She is no nonsense, she is fun, she is firm and extremely kind. As we approached the classroom this morning, she whisked me into a side office and told me about the prep she has done, just for our child. She recognises that she has to be five steps ahead with him, anticipating his anger, looking out for triggers for his controlling behaviours, seeking out the best companions for him on tasks. She has allocated a safe area in the classroom for him to go to when he feels angry or sad or needs to talk. She will be making him feel needed by giving him specific, but varied jobs each week – the variety means he can’t become obsessed with doing one thing, to the exclusion of all the other children.

Speaking to this teacher makes me feel grounded, it gives me hope. She listens to me and accepts that I know what this child needs. So often as foster carers I feel we are perhaps judged as being harsh – I have to monitor everything my foster daughter eats as she has an eating disorder. I can’t allow either child to have a sleepover with friends as they are both prone to sexualised behaviour. I have to remove a lot of choice fom their lives because otherwise obsession and control loom too large and cause conflict.

To be listened to and not judged is a fantastic thing. We beat ourselves up enough in our own time – at least my husband and I do – about how we are parenting these challenging children.

Support from school can go a long way to removing the stress from fostering. I feel very blessed that our foster son has this teacher for the next school year. He has so much potential, and hopefully this year he will be able to fulfill it, rebuild friendships and blossom as an individual.

Watch this space……

Back to school……and the difference a great teacher can make

Hidden disabilities

Attachment disorders can affect every part of your life – physical health, emotional stability, social skills, eating habits, education, economic well being. But they’re invisible.

Sometimes people are quick to react to the behaviour of our foster children. I had a woman shout at me and one child in a car park. ‘Don’t you know it’s rude to stare?!’ she bellowed furiously at us before stomping off. I didn’t even try to explain that this child was hypervigilant, always watching and monitoring everyone and everything for her own safety. That’s what living with abusive parents does to you. For your own survival, you have to map everybody’s movements and body language at all times. It comes across as staring. I had other people in shops and restaurants getting right up into this child’s face and waving their hands up and down at her in an attempt to stop her staring at them.

While shoe shopping with another foster child, he was asked to walk up and down by the shop assistant, to try his new shoes out for comfort. He immediately dissociated, seeing this request as some kind of pressure. His head sank down, his eyes glazed over and he was gone, completely, for around twenty minutes. It’s not easy buying shoes for a child who won’t or can’t respond to you, in any way.

Then there’s been the bizarre sulks over nothing, the hiding under tables in restaurants, the over friendliness to strangers, the rudeness to friends, the destruction of toys and belongings, the lack of empathy, the cruelty to pets, the dangerously high pain thresholds, the inabilty to self regulate, the thrill seeking behaviours, the sudden coldness.

I could go on. The behaviours confound and occasionally embarrass me, and the children are often confused by their own reactions.

Children with attachment disorders are juggling a huge number of balls all at once, often without any outward signs of doing so. While they are in our care, we can try to carry some of the load for them, to smooth the way to some extent, and to shield them from the judgement of others.

Once they are out in the world on their own, it’s no wonder that young people who have such disorders really struggle. It’s yet another reason why Looked After Children should be able to choose to stay in supported care (of come sort or other) until they are…..well, ready to leave, to step out on their own.

What we need is some long term thinking. Someone needs to weigh the costs of keeping young people in such placements against the costs of them struggling, failing and ending up in the prison system, with mental health issues, with children of their own who they can’t care for.




Hidden disabilities

Living with attachment disordered children

As a newly approved foster carer, I couldn’t understand what was wrong with the first child placed with us. He screamed constantly. He was on high alert, he swung violently between being fearful, and then furiously angry. And this was a baby, a nine month old boy, whose mum was also living with us. How could he be so damaged in such a short period of time? He drove me to distraction. He took me to the brink of my patience and energy. I just couldn’t fathom what was going on behind his eyes.

Nobody had mentioned attachment disorders to me at this stage. We naively agreed to a mother and baby placement for twelve weeks, thinking how lovely it would be. The baby’s mother had no idea about parenting – not her fault, as she had been parented inadequately herself – and I’m being kind by using the word inadequately.

So, about three weeks into the placement, I was pulling my hair out. My husband was flummoxed. We were both stressed. The baby’s mother was far too busy having shouted arguments down her mobile phone with various family members to notice that anything was wrong with her son.

I think another foster carer pointed me towards a book by Dan Hughes. ‘Building the Bonds of Attachment – Awakening Love in Deeply Troubled Children’. Suddenly, this little boy’s needs and behaviours began to make sense. I learnt about the anger, mistrust and¬† terror which neglectful and abusive parenting roots in a child. To be that tiny and feel you can’t rely on anyone for warmth, love, food, safety….anything….it does terrible things to your brain, your development and your sense of self. It leaches into every part of you and shapes you dramatically.

That particular placement ended, and others came and went. To a greater or lesser extent, all of the children we have cared for have had disordered attachments. Their behaviours can seem self destructive, bizarre, aggressive, clingy and cold – and one child could go through that entire range of behaviours in a matter of minutes.

It certainy keeps you on your toes. When you’re fostering every day you get used to dealing with the tantrums, the cold shoulders, the hurtful words and the lies. You can understand where they come from, but it’s hard not to take things personally sometimes. In a way, that’s probably one of the most valuable lessons I have learnt – it’s not really about me. In fact, it’s never about me. These children are not standing on a firm emotional foundation. They are often in freefall, and if I was in freefall, I would be lashing out, shouting, breaking things and wanting others to feel my hurt.

That’s what I keep hold of on the bad days. These children and young people are doing the best they can to survive. The world often doesn’t make sense to them and it must appear to them that everyone else has been given the rule book. They are out in the cold, trying desperately to fit in, never feeling good enough.

So, anyone out there considering becoing a foster carer – go for it, but be prepared to grow a skin as thick as a rhino hide. Learn some breathing techniques, share the burden and expect the unexpected. And read, read, read. Research child psychology and development, attachment disorders, trauma, resilience, bereavement.

And still, however many books you read, you’re never prepared for what the next day might bring. But who wants a boring, routine life anyway?

Fostering is an extraordinary  journey and it will bring out extraordinary strengths in you.


Living with attachment disordered children